In 2011 the CBS Evening News profiled the story of an anonymous Pennsylvania business man who every year plays the role of Secret Santa. Dressed in red and wearing a Kangol cap with "Elf" embroidered on the back, Secret Santa visits thrift stores, laundromats and bus stations handing out $100 bills to people he meets along the way. According to the report, this man gives away around $20,000 of his own money each Christmas.
When asked why he felt compelled to do this, Secret Santa said, “Because behind every one, there's a story. And to hear their story, and what a difference that little bit of money at that little point in time makes in their life, gives me an awful lot of joy. So there's a lot of happiness that comes with this. I get more joy out of it than they do."1
One man who received two crisp one-hundred dollar bills was 30-year-old Thomas Coates. "I didn't earn that," Coates said to Secret Santa as he slipped the money into his hand. "You did earn it," Secret Santa replied. "Because I can tell you're a good man." Coates began to tear up because he couldn’t remember the last time anyone called him a “good man”.
Coates is a deadbeat by most accounts, including his own. Addicted to heroin, he hocked his own son's toys for drug money. Interestingly, the night before Coates met Secret Santa—during yet another fight with his girlfriend—she suggested he try something radical—a prayer. Coates said his girlfriend told him, “Maybe you can shoot a prayer up to God real quick. I know you don't really believe in him, but maybe you can start.”
And so he did pray for the first time since childhood. Then, out of the blue, Secret Santa shows up slipping $100 bills into his hand. A display of that kind of kindness from a total stranger the day after he prayed was too much of a coincidence for this atheist to bear. “It's amazing,” Coates said. “That to me was a miracle. That was God saying, 'Alright, you had enough now. I'm going to show you something.' So from here on out it's up to me.” After meeting Secret Santa, Coates checked himself into a treatment facility. Although he's done it before, he says this will be the first time with God at the helm.
“Maybe that gave him the hope that he needs to break his addiction,” Secret Santa said. “And maybe that will be the turning point that will change his life and maybe he won't go back. Wouldn't that be worth it?”2 (Watch the video here)
As we celebrate this Christmas remember that one of the messages of Advent is hope. The nation of Israel was under a veil of silence for 400 years. The prophets had spoken about a coming Messiah, but it seemed he was nowhere to be found. Israel had become a doormat mat that invading armies would wipe their boots on as they moved across the Mediterranean to plunder other nations. The iron legions of Rome had tight grip on the Jewish people.
Then in a tiny corner of the Roman Empire, in Bethlehem, where the sheep population probably outnumbered the people, the long awaited Messiah was born. The heavenly silence was broken as God came into the world kicking and screaming as tiny infant. His robes were swaddling clothes. His bed a manger. And the welcoming committee for the Son of God was a rabble of ruddy shepherds.
Frederick Buechner, in The Hungering Dark, writes:
"Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If the holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and re-create the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully."3
The Christ child was better than any gift the Secret Santa could muster from his wallet. The money would be spent and then what? At the first Christmas, God illuminated a stable with the Light of the World. Christ came into a dark and violent world, bringing with him hope and light. John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The song “O Holy Night” says it best, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
The hope of Christmas is that God is never too far away. While we grope in the darkness, Christ wants to invade our hearts and fill it with love, joy and peace that will endure forever.
1. Timothy Stenovec, "Anonymous Secret Santa Hands out $100 Bills in America's Poorest City," Huffington Post, 1 December 2011, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/01/anonymous-good-samaritan-secret-santa-video_n_1123869.html>
2. Steve Hartman, "Secret Santa Inspires Heroine Addict to Clean up," CBS Evening News, 16 December 2011, <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/secret-santa-inspires-heroin-addict-to-clean-up/>
3. Fredrick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 13-14.